Treating employees and coworkers in a respectful and professional manner is the golden standard for maintaining a healthy and safe workplace. In real life, however, social and personal differences can create tensions. If those tensions are allowed to flourish, they can create a hostile and even dangerous work environment which, in turn, can take a negative toll on employee wellbeing. Unhappy employees do not do good work and abused employees quit or file a formal complaint or a lawsuit. This is to say: everyone loses when harassment and violence permeate the workplace.
This article specifically addresses harassment in the workplace in Canada: how it is defined, how it is legislated, and the relevant anti-harassment training requirements as they apply to Canadian employers.
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Workplace Harassment Defined
Workplace harassment is very much against the law in Canada, referring to harmful acts or verbal remarks that are known/expected to be unwelcome -- that negatively affect the wellbeing of employees and poison the workplace environment in general.
Formally, under Canada's Policy on Harassment Prevention and Resolution, "harassment" is defined as:
improper conduct by an individual in the workplace, including at any event or any location related to work, and that the individual knew or ought reasonably to have known would cause offense or harm. It comprises objectionable act(s), comment(s) or display(s) that demean, belittle, or cause personal humiliation or embarrassment, and any act of intimidation or threat.
Harassment is further covered under the Canadian Human Rights Act, which forbids discrimination (which can take the form of harassment) aimed at individuals on the basis of race, national or ethnic origin, gender, sex, religion, age, sexual orientation, family status, disability, marital status, and pardoned conviction.
Bullying at work can be a problem: some bosses or coworkers bully those around/under them as a power flex, and oftentimes this aggression is motivated by discriminatory ideas about gender, race, age, etc. Bullying usually takes the form of acts or verbal remarks (and sometimes negative physical contact) that may psychologically hurt or isolate the employee. Bullying typically happens overtime and is intended to intimidate, offend, demean, or embarrass a particular individual or a group of people.
While the precise definition of "workplace sexual harassment" varies from province to province, the definition that is most typically invoked is that sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination involving unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature that negatively affects the work environment and leads to adverse work-related consequences.
The risk of violence at the workplace depends on a constellation of work conditions.
Certain professions, for instance, come with a higher risk for workplace violence. Those include health care employees, social services employees, veterinary practices, police/security/correctional officers, education providers, municipal housing inspectors, retail workers, alcohol vendors, taxi/transit drivers, public works employees, and other forms of employment involving handling/being around money, prescription drugs, customers, and unstable or volatile persons.
Then, other risk factors come into play as well. For example, there are higher instances of workplace violence during late night shifts, during the tax return season, or for workplaces located in isolated areas. Sometimes family violence spills into workplace violence, as when domestic members show up, repeatedly phone, or otherwise harass the employee at work.
Since the Covid-19 pandemic, many workers have become remote -- and this has contributed to the rise of online harassment. A key issue with online harassment is that there are no witnesses and the worker may be experiencing the bullying in social isolation.
Harassment Is Typically A Repetitive Occurrence
For the most part, more than one act/event of unwelcome speech/behavior is needed to qualify it as "harassment" at work. A one-time behavior or remark can be a mistake or a misunderstanding, but repeated acts make for a pattern.
Unless it is particularly lewd, dramatic, violent, or otherwise heavily impactful on the victim in a singular event (which does happen), most harassment builds into a hostile environment overtime over multiple incidents. This is certainly true when it comes to office microaggressions: separately, some behaviors and comments may seem "innocent enough", but when all these subtle comments and looks and jokes and invalidations add up, they serve to perpetuate negative social stereotypes and can have a damaging effect on employees' psychological health.
The Cost Of Workplace Harassment
Workplace harassment, in its various forms, carries any number of negative effects on the health of an organization, including:
- increased absenteeism/employee turnover
- increased stress/decreased productivity
- low morale/toxic work environments
- increased costs for employee assistance programs/support services
- legal risk to the organization
- damaged brand reputation/lowered customer confidence
Workplace Harassment Laws In Canada
In Canada, there exist anti-workplace-harassment laws on both federal and provincial levels of government.
Employers that are part of federally regulated industries are subject to the federal Canada Labour Code.
To help regulate industries not covered under federal jurisdiction, the majority of Canadian provinces have their own laws designed to prevent harassment and violence, such as the British Columbia 's Occupational Health and Safety Regulation under the WorkSafeBC initiative and Ontario's Occupational Health and Safety Act and Human Rights Code.
Some jurisdictions count workplace harassment as a form of workplace violence while others keep those terms defined separately.
The Workplace Harassment Complaint Process
Those who work in federally regulated workplaces who feel that they have been a victim (or a witness) of workplace harassment/violence can file a formal "notice of occurrence" with their employer (the employer should have a workplace policy on filing such a complaint developed/available for the employee to follow).
Victimized Canadian employees working in occupations regulated by a provincial/territorial government can file a notice of occurrence with their provincial/territorial department of labor.
How Much Time Is There To Report Incidents Of Workplace Harassment?
A formal complaint of harassment must be filed within 12 months of the last incident of alleged harassment. The complainant can allege additional incidents that go further back in time than 12 months -- if a direct relation to the last incident named in the claim is established (this is especially important in demonstrating a pattern of harassment developing overtime).
Harassment Training Laws For Canadian Employers
Under the Canada Labour Code, in compliance with Bill C-65, effective January 1, 2021, federally regulated employers are required to provide mandatory training on prevention of harassment and workplace violence for employees.
A Canadian employer must make sure that each of their employees is provided with anti-harassment training:
- within 3 months of getting hired
- at least once every 3 years thereafter
- after any update to their work assignments/roles for which there is increased or specific risk of workplace harassment or violence
The private sector employers not covered by federal regulations should consult their local provincial labor standards and training requirements indicated within each province's labor department.
Workplace Harassment & Violence Prevention Training Is Essential
Everyone deserves a safe and healthy work environment! The best-known preventive measures come from training and educational initiatives.
In addition to developing and implementing policies to fight harassment head-on when it happens, anti-harassment and violence training (administered to all levels of employees) serves to foster an understanding of the problem that nips disrespectful/inappropriate behaviors in the bud before they have a chance to poison the work environment.
- Anti-Harassment Training For The Leadership. It's imperative for employers -- as well as their executives, HR leaders, managers, and other supervisors -- to understand how harassment laws impact them -- and how to be compliant themselves as well as ensure compliance among the employees they are charged with.
- Anti-Harassment Training For The Workforce. Likewise, employees must be trained in avoiding antagonizing each other with inappropriate conduct, aggressive, or micro-aggressive behaviors and words: the productivity of the company depends on it!
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EasyLlama's Canadian province-specific anti-harassment programs are easy and impactful, designed to:
- educate your workforce to understand the law and know their rights
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- give them the tools to combat those problems safely and effectively when toxic behaviors at the workplace do rear their ugly head
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Written by: Maria Malyk